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Don’t let brainstorms be a headache – 14 steps to ideation success


Don’t let brainstorms be a headache – 14 steps to ideation success


Some fast thinking and idea generation can be invaluable for businesses of all sizes, but if you do it in the wrong way with the wrong people, you’re wasting your time. Rodd Chant goes through the 10 characters you always find in a brainstorm session and 14 steps to maximising ideas.

Rodd Chant BW 150To generate ideas in a group setting is hard, very hard. I should know as it has been part of my career for 25 years, but the basic principle of two heads are better than one does apply. That’s why ad agencies traditionally had creative teams made up of two people, a concept started by Bill Bernbach.

Here’s the typical cast of characters you will usually find in your average brainstorm meeting.

  1. The Wallflower: they don’t contribute or partake very much, they simply have creative shyness, they are afraid of their ideas being laughed at or ignored, but all they lack is some creative confidence.
  2. The Steamroller: they keep throwing stuff out, over the top of others and that eventually stops some from contributing.
  3. The Bar Stool Expert: they know everything, no really they do, just ask them. And if anyone else has an idea that is different to theirs then it is obviously wrong.
  4. The Distracted: they have too many other meetings and deadlines to be fully vested in the session.
  5. The Hitchhiker: they hear an idea and agree with it wholeheartedly, and that is about as much as they contribute. They are along for the ride as a passenger, not a driver or even a navigator.
  6. The Professional: maybe it’s a creative person who generates ideas for a living, such as someone from an ad agency.
  7. The Disenfranchised: not part of the project at hand, roped in to make up the numbers. They would rather be anywhere else except in that room.
  8. The Phoner: the ones that are more engaged with their phone than the brainstorm.
  9. The ‘I’m Just Here For The Free Sandwiches’: you know the ones, but can you blame them? It’s a free lunch.
  10. The Big Boss: the person at the very top, the CEO or chairman, guaranteed to stop anyone who is career-focused from throwing out wild ideas.

All of the above, apart from numbers one and six, are generally a complete waste of time in an ideas session.

If you want to get a group of people together to generate ideas, here is what I would recommend:

1. Curate the attendees, carefully

It’s a useless exercise to simply round up random people from your office. You need the a mix of the right people in the room, ones that are truly vested in the project at hand and others who would be invaluable due to their personality, motivation or even quirkiness. You need to assure them it will be enjoyable and not your usual cookie-cutter brainstorm. Also you need one session curator/leader – someone who will not participate in the ideation process, they are there to lead, manage and collate the thinking.

2. Don’t make it a full day session

People have short attention spans, and let’s be honest, your boardroom is probably not that inspiring a place to sit for an entire day. If done correctly a half-day should suffice – and start it in the morning.

3. Go off site 

For reasons mentioned above. Maybe find a local art gallery that will let you camp out for a morning, bring in some coffees and pastries and you’re good to go. Sit on the floor or maybe bring in some stools, whatever is needed. 

4. Start the process before you even get into the room

Insist people come armed with ideas. That’s how it works in an ad agency, teams are briefed and each team has to present ideas often in front of other teams, all are competing to get their ideas across the line.

5. Find and invite wildcard thinkers

Bring other creative thinkers and idea generators into the mix – chefs, artists, musicians, poets, fashion designers, filmmakers, photographers and writers. Maybe also go to a local college or university and find some young thinkers. Having fresh eyes and ears that have not been burdened by previous challenges relating to your product, brand or company or the daily corporate rigours of a nine-to-five existence can yield surprising results.

6. Ditch the boss

Don’t invite the CEO or chairman. It can be intimidating for some people to put forward wild and crazy thinking (which can be the seeds for great ideas) when there is someone so senior in the room.

7. No smartphones, tablets or laptops allowed, no exceptions

The world will not come to an end if you are not connected for a couple of hours.

8. Start with ideas

Kick the session off by having everyone present/talk through the ideas they brought to the table. No voting or discussion of these ideas, just listen and absorb.

9. Divide and conquer

Split everyone up into teams of two or three, depending on how many attendees you have. Task them with generating more ideas together for an hour.

10. Present the new thinking

Listen and absorb.

11. Repeat step nine

But reshuffle the teams.

12. Present again

Listen and absorb (again).

13. Wrap it up

You’re done, for now.

14. Celebrate

Everyone goes to lunch together. I’m talking a real lunch. Go to a real restaurant with good food and wine. Let the conversation flow spurred on by the ideas that were shared previously. To be honest, you may just get the best ideas there – food and wine can be an amazing idea generator, it worked for generations in advertising.


The next day the curator or leader should have an abundance of ideas to go through. Hopefully notes were taken at the lunch as well. Many a brilliant idea has been scribbled on a napkin. When you think the same you get the same ideas you always get. But when you think different you get different ideas, and when you make it enjoyable you get even better ideas.

Rodd Chant is creative director at Chant Creative


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Image credit:Samuel Zeller


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